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On the margin, should EA focus on outreach or retention?

byMilan_Griffes2mo31st May 20192 comments

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Peter Hurford estimates that 40% of people who get excited enough about EA to fill out the annual EA survey end up exiting the community within 5 years.

(Current estimates of EA's 5-year retention rate range between 16% and 74%, depending on how you measure it.)

Boosting EA's retention rate could be very leveraged, given that it takes a lot of labor to onboard each new person into the milieu.

Given the present distribution of EA "meta" labor, should Effective Altruism focus on outreach or retention, on the margin?


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I think we should focus on retention. When I asked what has caused EA movement growth to slow down, the answer achieved through the consensus in the comments was that EA chose to focus on fidelity rather than movement growth.

I choose to interpret this as the EA community not knowing how to make good use of the same high growth rates with fidelity towards our goals, since several years ago when the community was much smaller to pursue our goals with fidelity entailed growing the community large enough to have a chance of achieving our goals. So, it's not an either/or scenario. Suffice to say growth has been necessary to EA in the past, but we're at a stage where:

  • we have some resources in excess of what we are making use of.
  • we may not know how to make use of greater growth.
  • there are multiple other factors to progress on EA's goals more limiting than growth.

So, EA is currently at a point where growth doesn't appear as crucial. I imagine in the future, as EA solves factors limiting our rate of progress on the pursuit of our goals unrelated to growth, success will free up more opportunity to make good use of growth. The growth rate of EA is slowing. It may plateau or decline in the future. It doesn't appear a problem right now.

Meanwhile, there was a relatively popular article a couple months ago about how EA doesn't focus enough on climate change, and there were many comments from people who would otherwise be much more involved in EA being put off by the apparent neglect of climate change. As a professional community, if we keep demanding high talent but keep lacking the capacity to match talented people to jobs, then lots of those people we initially attracted mostly for the jobs will exit when there are none.

So, in the last few months, there are multiple examples about how retention failure may pose a serious problem to EA in the future. Meanwhile, a lack of growth doesn't pose a current serious threat to EA. EA as a community seems to understand our own growth much more than we understand retention, since we haven't studied it as much. I've been impressed by how much understanding of the movement's own growth was demonstrated in the answers I've gotten. So, I'm confident if EA thought it needed to sustain high growth rates once again, we could rise to such a pressing challenge. I'm not confident we know how to solve retention problems.

To solve retention problems EA would need to learn what are the potential sources of retention problems. Were EA to solve such potential problems, we would solve problems not only causing existing effective altruists to leave the movement, but also problems newcomers see in EA that repel them. So, focusing on retention solves problems in the present that will help with movement growth in the future, if ever EA tries to grow at a faster rate in the future.

Finally, I'd say the third option of 'upskilling' Aaron suggested in his comment isn't totally mutually exclusive with retention either, since I think increasing opportunities for upskilling, especially making them more inclusive and widely available, would do a lot for retention in EA as well.